Some videoconferences are a smashing success, and some are, well, somewhat less so. Understanding that there's much on the line at these high-tech events--the meeting's objectives, the company's image, and the event manager's neck--I recently sat down with friend and colleague Gina Nelson, vice president of business development for Interactive Conferencing Network Inc., to talk about ways to ensure a videoconferencing success. ICN, headquartered in New York, designs and delivers more than 50 video events annually, including satellite broadcasts, ISDN dial-up, and Internet webcasts.

MH: Gina, what is the number-one key to a successful videoconferencing event?

GN: Planning! Every meeting has a purpose, and the planner must tie every detail, including the videoconferencing medium, back to that purpose. You have to select the technology, get the sites lined up, ensure that each venue has the required capabilities, and allot the time and budget to bring in needed services. I was recently asked to get ISDN installed in Somalia in less than a week. It just doesn't happen that fast.

MH: A major planning component is organizing the venue. What makes it work?

GN: We've never found a site we couldn't service. Some venues--Somalia, for instance--take more time than others. Hotels and convention centers are obvious choices, but we've used college classrooms, movie theaters, and hospitals. Once we did a live broadcast from a hospital operating room.

MH: What happens when you bring several different venues together into a single meeting?

GN: Be careful on this one! Support and provision all your sites consistently. If you put one group in a strip-mall theater and another in a resort, you'll hear about it! Make sure that food service, amenities, and support facilities are comparable in each venue. That includes staff that can answer attendee questions, as well as things like parking availability, simultaneous translation services, and so on. If the attendees need photocopying and fax services, you may need to provide them if the venue can't.

MH: So we've planned, selected venues, and provided all the underlying services. What happens during the meeting?

GN: A critical factor is to make attendees active participants rather than just observers. If you are using a two-way videoconferencing medium, make sure content and questions are drawn from the remote sites. If you are using a one-way broadcast medium, then use an audio link to allow questions from the sites, or fax them into the host site. Another very effective approach is to bring the conference down and allow each site to have a local, face-to-face discussion about the broadcast content. Then bring the broadcast back up and discuss the findings of the individual remote sites with the entire group.

MH: What happens after the meeting?

GN: Because you produced the event with communications technology, you can use other forms of technology to follow up and keep the event alive. One way to do this is through polling: Find out what the audience thought about your message and act on that information. Post meeting handouts on a Web site so others can reach them. More and more of our customers put the digitized content on the Web so that nonparticipants can review it. Almost all our large meetings get videotaped, and the organizers often distribute copies.

MH: One last question: What happened with the Somalia event?

GN: A satellite dish was the client's next option, but his budget didn't allow for it. Once we discussed the purpose of his meeting, we agreed that a standard audioconference was his best bet. We steered him away from our videoconferencing services, but I expect we'll hear from this client again. Only next time, I am sure we will have more notice if he's off to Somalia!